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Jarrod Saltalamacchia's pitch-framing skills should improve with the Tigers in 2016

Jarrod Saltalamacchia used to be an above-average pitch framer. The reason why he got worse and the reason why he can get better are the same reason.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers didn't sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia because they loved his superior defensive skills. They signed him because he was a veteran catcher with some hefty power from the left side of the plate, a near-perfect platoon partner for the up-and-coming James McCann. That, and he was ridiculously cheap. Veteran mentor + left-side power + ultra-affordable = yeah, duh, of course we're signing him.

But back to that defensive question.

I've already written many words on whether or not pitch framing is a real thing, and it is, even if it's difficult to quantify. However accurate or inaccurate those numbers are (or aren't), they do give us some kind of measuring stick, and those numbers have not been kind to Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the past few years:

Year Framing Runs
2013 -5.1
2014 -34
2015 -8.6


But Dan Dickerson mentioned during Wednesday's game that, once upon a time, Saltalamacchia "was an above-average catcher," even though "he has not graded out as well in recent years, and a large part of that has been the grades he gets for his receiving."

When was the last time Saltalamacchia was an above-average pitch framer? Check the table:

Year Framing Runs
2010 -0.2
2011 6.8
2012 5.1
2013 -5.1

Well, hello, 2011 and 2012. (Yes, 2013, I begrudgingly acknowledge you as well.)

So what is it that enables a catcher to be slightly below or at average levels in 2010, climb to well above average in 2011 and 2012, and then take a deep dive into the shallow end of the pool just a year later?

Hell if I know, man, I just collect the numbers. The data only shows us what did happen, it doesn't tell us why. But perhaps there are a couple of clues here if we do a bit more digging.

In 2010, Saltalamacchia went from the Texas Rangers to the Boston Red Sox, where he spent the next three full seasons from 2011-2013. Aha, Watson, the game is afoot! The large leap from -0.2 framing runs to 6.8 framing runs coincides with the move from Texas to Boston.

But if the change in scenery was the only explanation, why did his framing runs drop from 5.1 to -5.1 when he remained in the same environment?

The dropoff from the 2011-2012 numbers to the 2013 numbers is especially strange, considering that Boston's pitching staff actually got better in 2013, which would lead you to expect that Saltalamacchia's numbers would also get better.

Year Boston SP ERA Boston SP FIP
2011 4.49 4.36
2012 5.19 4.69
2013 3.84 3.96

I've searched high and low for a reasonable answer, I've stared into tea leaves, I've meditated, I've dropped unhealthy quantities of LSD (not for this research, just because I had a free weekend and I was bored), and there's only one explanation I can come up with: the Red Sox had been using Gary Tuck as their bullpen/catching coach from 2007-2012, but they replaced him with Dana LeVangie in 2013.

Can a catching coach make that much of a difference? Maybe, possibly, it's hard to say. But that does seem to be the one significant variable that changed between Saltalamacchia's +5.1 season and his -5.1 season.

We've all heard that Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was a superior pitch framer back in his time (he averaged 25.7 framing runs from 2004-2007), and if Saltalamacchia does indeed benefit that much from good instruction, there is a chance that his receiving skills could improve this year.

Dan Dickerson noted during the game that the Tigers had "been working with both catchers on their receiving skills," and he was optimistic that Saltalamacchia "can get back to being an above-average receiver or at least average."

From your mouth to the ears of the baseball gods, Mr. Dickerson.